A New England poet and teacher affectingly recalls finding his voice amid a rural New Hampshire childhood deeply scarred by divorce and discipline.
McNair (Lovers of the Lost: New and Selected Poems, 2010, etc.) was born in 1941 to a young Missouri couple who migrated to find work in New Hampshire; soon after his father abandoned the young family, now with three young sons. In 1952, his mother remarried a French Canadian with horticulture aspirations. The children worked on a small West Claremont farm, observing their parents’ sense of strict discipline and scrimping and saving. After the novelty wore off, the three boys came to view their farm life as “an endless grind,” and the author especially was perceived as spacey and ill-focused, called a “hammerhead” and frequently whipped for infractions. McNair’s stepfather aimed to inculcate in the boys a sense of the meaning of work, yet the excessive punishments—e.g., being grounded for the summer for being late one evening walking a girl home—made the author only want to plot continually to run away from home. He did so after high-school graduation, making his way from one menial job to the next, all the while planning ways to progress in school. Steeped in the work of Cummings, Eliot and Dos Passos, he wanted to be a writer. Yet his big chance to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt learning poetry at the feet of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the early 1960s was derailed when he fell for a divorcée with two children. For readers, who will root for the author’s young persona, his decision to hunker down and pay the bills marks a denouement that is stunning and bitter; after about 80 pages, the details of parental grief predominate. McNair went on to various degrees and teaching accomplishments, yet his memoir from then on tellingly dwells more on his family than on his own work.
Sensibly wrought, without lyrical affectation.